John Shearer: The Tennessee/Kentucky Rivalry Dates Back To 1950

Wednesday, November 21, 2012
1952 newspaper article on game.
1952 newspaper article on game.

This Saturday, Tennessee and Kentucky will meet again in football in their annual border rivalry.

Despite the fact that Tennessee holds a 74-24-9 lead in the series, the two teams have been involved in some interesting and exciting encounters over the years. And never was that truer than in 1950 and 1952, when the games, like this year, were also in Knoxville.

But the fact that the games were close and exciting was only part of the story line; they were also played in the rarest of conditions for Tennessee football games – snow.

And, by the way, the two games featured a couple of pretty good coaches named Gen. Robert Neyland and Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Coming into the 1950 game on Nov. 25, Tennessee was 8-1, with the only loss being at Mississippi State during the second week of the season.

Coach Bryant, meanwhile, had led his Wildcats to a 10-0 record in what was his fifth year as the Wildcat coach. But he had yet to defeat Gen. Neyland, although the two teams tied 0-0 in 1948. This year, the Wildcat faithful were hopeful the situation would be different.

“These partisan fans believed that Bear Bryant had the right combination to provide Kentucky’s first victory over a Bob Neyland team,” wrote Ed Harris of the Knoxville Journal. “They base their belief on the performance of All-America quarterback Vito Parilli and All-America tackle Bob Gain.” 

Many consider Parilli the greatest Kentucky quarterback ever, while Gain went on to win the Outland Trophy that year as the nation’s best lineman.

When the Kentucky team flew into Knoxville the Friday before the game, it found a chilly situation – and not just from the Tennessee fans. An unusual-for-November six-inch snowfall took place, and temperatures would fall to 18 degrees by game time. Such weather in Knoxville was not unusual between about Christmas and late February, but it certainly was in late November.

Workers labored hard Friday removing the snow off the field tarpaulin simply with shovels and wheelbarrows, but the situation was not going to be that easy for all the snow in the seating areas. As a result, Gen. Neyland called for understanding among the large crowd still expected to attend.

“It will be extremely difficult to remove the snow prior to tomorrow’s game,” he said via the newspaper. “It will be utterly impossibly to remove the snow from the 51,000 seats now provided for in the stadium. Under these circumstances, it will be difficult for customers to find to the necessity of sitting and standing in the snow. Sympathetic understanding and cooperation from the immense crowd is requested in order that conditions already bad do not become intolerable.”

When the game took place, only 45,000 actually attended. But those who did come enjoyed a game for the ages. Knoxville Journal sports writer Ben Byrd called it perhaps the greatest football game ever played at Shields-Watkins Field (later Neyland Stadium).

The weather helped dictate the game, as No. 3 Kentucky lost 8 of 9 fumbles, while ninth-ranked Tennessee lost 4 of 7. It was one Kentucky fumble that would prove to be the costliest one of the game, however.

In the second quarter, Bob Davis recovered a Kentucky fumble on the Wildcat 36. Then, on the drive, Herky Payne fumbled for Tennessee. But Dan Bordinger, a reserve guard, made perhaps the play of his career in getting back on it.

On the very next play, Tennessee tailback Hank Lauricella – who would finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1951 -- hit Bert Rechichar on a 27-yard pass for a touchdown. Pat Shires muffed the extra point, but Kentucky was penalized. He then made the second extra point attempt to put the Vols up 7-0.

The score would remain that way despite a tense second half, including one Kentucky fumble recovery in Tennessee territory in the fourth quarter. As a result, the Vols had a victory to remember for years along with the equally unforgettable weather.

Gen. Neyland, who was given a ride on the shoulders of his players afterward, called the game a very hard fought one. “Naturally I am very proud of our boys for doing so well against a fine team like Kentucky,” he said.

Tennessee had already been in line for a Cotton Bowl invitation to face Texas, which the Vols would win, while Charles Zatarain of the Sugar Bowl was on hand to present Coach Bryant the Wildcats’ first invitation to the annual New Orleans clash at Tulane Stadium, despite the loss.

The Wildcats would go on to beat Oklahoma to stop the Sooners’ two-year winning streak and finish the season on a high note.

When the 1952 game arrived on Nov. 22, Kentucky under coach Bryant was 5-3-1 and not having quite as good a year, with players like Parilli gone.

Tennessee, meanwhile, was 7-1, although Gen. Neyland was suffering a blood disorder that would force his retirement after the season. Also bad news for Tennessee was the fact that popular back Andy Kozar had suffered a slight pelvic bone fracture against Florida the week before in an injury that created collective concern possibly never seen by the Vol faithful.

Also, offensive tackle Jim Haslam, who was Kozar’s roommate, would have to be held out because UT officials realized he had actually played briefly in some games in 1949, when he was supposed to have been redshirted. He, of course, would later be able to wear some nice business shirts after becoming quite rich with his Pilot oil business and producing sons who would become a governor and an owner of the Cleveland Browns.  

Kentucky coach Bryant had actually scouted the Vols earlier in the season after his team had played at Miami on a Friday night. As was the custom of the time, he actually watched the North Carolina-UT game on Nov. 1 from the press box of Shields-Watkins Field.

Playing Parilli’s position in 1952 was Steve Mellinger from Bethlehem, Pa., who was so versatile he had even played in Kentucky’s Best Band in Dixie during the season.

But the biggest fear for Tennessee was not any player in blue for Kentucky, but the white found everywhere. Just as was the case two years earlier when the two teams played, a heavy snow began falling on Friday.

However, the snow in 1952 was a record 18.2 inches in 25 hours. The previous high recorded was 15.1 inches way back in 1886. Some 20,000 homes in the Knoxville area were without power, and telephone, rail, airline and public bus service were also crippled.

The game was still scheduled, although some fans could not get to the game, and others had extreme trouble getting there. One Knoxville family even came to the game in a motor-powered canoe.

By game time, some 35,000 brave fans had arrived. Enterprising youngsters offered to clean people’s seats for a tip, while some fans brought their own shovels along with newspapers, sides of boxes or even blankets on which they could sit. Flying snowballs became another unusual scene.

The shrewd coach Bryant and his players went out on the field at 12:30 p.m. and inspected it for footing. Gen. Neyland came out afterward and inspected it as well.

Compared to the 1950 game, the field in 1952 was considered a little wetter and more slippery. A tarp had nicely protected the field in 1950, but after 18 inches of a wet snow in 1952, it managed to seep through the tarp.

With strange weather, the game had to be kind of unusual, right? That is right! But it did not start out that way. In fact, it looked like it was going to be a routine Tennessee win. On Tennessee’s first play from scrimmage, fullback Ray Byrd showed the speed that had made him the Tennessee high school 100-yard dash champion in 1949 by going 65 yards for a touchdown. Vic Kolenik converted the kick, and Tennessee was quickly ahead 7-0.

The second touchdown came in the second period on a long touchdown drive aided by runs by Pat Shires, Dave Griffith, Jimmy Wade and Byrd, with Spires scoring the TD from the one.

The score remained that way until the half and even into most of the second half. But with six minutes left in the game, Kentucky fans started a comeback that would long be remembered north of the border. The Wildcats proceeded to go 61 yards in 11 plays with their talented backs pounding away yardage. A nice 16-year pass play from Herb Hunt to Steve Mellinger also helped. Hunt later scored the touchdown from the one-yard line.

Kentucky still had hope, even if it was somewhat dim. Eighteen-year-old Bob Bassitt, who had converted the extra point to cut the deficit to 14-7, tried an onside kick and miraculously recovered his own ball.

Because a penalty had been assessed on the kickoff against Tennessee for unnecessary roughness, Kentucky had the ball on the Tennessee 33-yard line.

A few moments later, Kentucky faced fourth down and seven. Would Tennessee be able to stop them?

Unfortunately for Vol fans, Herb Hunt dropped back and calmly hit Jim Proffitt across the goal. Bob Wilson of the News Sentinel wrote that the 6-foot-2 junior from Louisville had to jump almost as high as the goal post in trying to make the catch.

He likely felt like jumping that high again after Bassitt kicked the extra point and the Wildcats tied the score, 14-14.

Only one minute, 45 seconds remained in the game. Tennessee tried to let Jimmy Wade break a long run, but the Vols ended up having to punt and the game ended in a 14-14 tie.

Usually the elation levels are not as equal as the score during a tie, and Kentucky was no doubt the much happier team after the game.

As sports writer Bob Wilson wrote, “Kentucky’s fast-finishing Wildcats staged an amazing and spectacular comeback by scoring two quick, fourth-period touchdowns to gain a 14-14 tie with Tennessee’s Cotton Bowl-bound Volunteers on Shields-Watkins Field yesterday afternoon.

“Jubilant Kentucky supporters, and the players, too, considered it a 14-14 Wildcat victory. As Kentucky knotted the score, the Wildcats and their coaches came off the benches jumping into the air, whooping and hollering with glee. And as the game ended, the players hoisted Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and his assistant coaches on their shoulders and gave them a ride off the field.”

Some were calling it the greatest victory of Coach Bryant’s tenure at Kentucky, even though it was a tie.

As the years would pass, fans would remember fondly both the 1950 and 1952 Kentucky-Tennessee games – for both the exciting outcomes, and, of course, the unusual weather.

Clipping of 1950 snowy scene
Clipping of 1950 snowy scene

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